A lot has been written about the viral video, the charity which produced it and Joseph Kony himself since the video went viral. So far, the narrator and star of the video appears to have had a rather public breakdown, the charity’s workers have been under siege by paparazzi and the Ugandan government has released a video and tweeted about how lovely Uganda really is, without Kony, who hasn’t been in Uganda for some time. However that has not stopped the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA as they are known, continuing to wreak havoc and commit atrocities – even now. In fact he whole of central Africa, including Congo, Southern Sudan and other areas are continuing to suffer the attacks of the Lord’s Resistance Army who strike in remote areas, away from the prying eyes of international officials and the media. According to Human Rights Watch, a recent massacre went unreported for months. The truth is, we don’t know what the LRA are up to or who they are recruiting.
A debate on YouTube brought out a lot of the issues well, but like everything else I have seen, it did not address the issue of child soldiers. I’m beginning to think we don’t want to face up to the reality that children are acting as soldiers in many areas of the globe. I studied child soldiers at Swansea University’s International Relations department, and although I’m not going to suggest that kidnapping children and forcing them into armed or sexual service is right, I feel I have to use this opportunity to shed some light on the issue, which many believe is an open and shut case. The reason this hasn’t been discussed is understandable: no-one wants to even think about children fighting on the front lines, of childhoods robbed and young people exploited. However to write it off like this is naive and does the children themselves – those invisible children the charity has named itself after – a disservice.
The awkward truth about child soldiers is that they are not easy to put into one category. Different countries around the world and rebel groups use child soldiers. This is frowned upon by the international community, but it’s important to note that before we judge them all the same, that not all child soldiers are kidnapped and forced into service. In fact, children do sign up themselves, although these young people are often under pressure to earn money (yes, child soldiers are often paid and this is a powerful means of recruiting new members) or have nowhere else to go if they have lost their families in conflict or some other sad situation.
Another myth that seems to perpetuate every child solider reference is the shocking idea of girls being kidnapped to become sex slaves. Although this has undoubtedly happened, it should be understood that some girls actually are trained to fight. Not all of them are sex slaves and some choose a life as an army wife of an officer, or as a spy, messenger or domestic, looking after the army, rather than face a more unpleasant life of enforced marriage, domestic violence or servitude.
This doesn’t mean that child soldiering is a good thing. Some could argue that being able to join the armed services in the UK at 16 is too young. There is a huge debate over the age at which a person becomes an adult – it’s not a straightforward threshold. Consider the long life expectancy of a UK child – up to one in three born in 2012 may live to 100 – and compare it to one born in Afghanistan, where life expectancy is still 44.Who are we to say that young people in other countries grow up no faster than we do? Almost certainly children born in poverty in developing countries take on more responsibility at a younger age, especially when it comes to earning money and supporting a family. If we wish to see ‘children remaining children’ until their late teens, we need to work to improve life in general in a country, not just impose sanctions and station armed forces to try to stop child soldiers. Kids with guns may be an uncomfortable subject, but the less we talk about it, the more taboo it becomes. It is a symptom of other problems – wars which have been fought for decades deplete the source of adult fighters and render countries unsafe, wild places where the population lives in fear and no society can become better in these circumstances. Killing or capturing Joseph Kony will not stop the LRA. And more than that, it will definitely not stop child soldiering, because it is not an issue unique to the area in which his troops act.
A worrying aspect of the charity’s aims is their support for military action. The US already has troops in the area and if they are not able to solve this issue, would a bigger intervention? That doesn’t mean we get to sit back and do nothing. We have a moral obligation as human beings to see the whole picture and act to prevent situations breeding violence, instability and punishing poverty which leads to child soldiers and the associated harm it can do to a society. We should recognise that for some children, being a combatant or worker in an army is preferable to home and family life. That doesn’t mean we should tolerate it; we should try to make life better for them. How do we do that? There’s not an easy answer.
Invisible Children are fighting a single issue war in a complicated, multi-issue world. Single issues raise money and gain support, but the charity needs to wake up and realise that the solution is not about one man.